Reformation Day [Observed]
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
October 30, 2011
The Epistle reading gives us a good opportunity to make clear what it means that we celebrate the Reformation.
Some people think the Reformation is about Martin Luther, the one that lived some 500 years ago. In our society some might think it’s about the Martin Luther that lived some 50 years ago, that is, Martin Luther King, Jr. Usually Lutherans know not only MLK but also the Martin Luther of the sixteenth century, the one that nailed those 95 Theses on the door. But the Reformation isn’t about Luther, it’s about Christ.
Some people think that the Reformation is about being Protestant. But it’s not. While there are many Christians who identify themselves as Protestants, Lutherans don’t. Or at least shouldn’t. We are not protesting anything. Reformation is about reforming, not protesting. We do not protest. We proclaim. What we proclaim is Christ. Reformation is always about Christ.
In a similar vein, there are many who think that the Reformation is all about not being Roman Catholic. But it’s not that either. We do not exist as the Lutheran Church in order to make clear that we are not Roman Catholic. The Reformation is not about not being something else, but about holding up Christ.
Some people think that Reformation in the Church, that is, the Christian Church, is wrong. They say that the Church is Christ’s Church. Since it is Christ’s Church it is therefore pure, and therefore not in need of being reformed. It’s true that the Holy Christian Church is Christ’s Church and it’s true that it is pure. It is also true that Christ delights in filling up His Church with sinners. Sinners are always in need of reformation, of being reformed. The Reformation is about Christ saving sinners.
There are probably many other notions people have about Reformation. But there is one that trumps all the others. It’s the notion that we’re not in need of it. And by this I mean we’re not in need of it in the way God tells us. We have this notion that we can bring it about. As Paul says it in the Epistle reading, by works of the Law. This is another way of saying, ‘by what we do’. Paul stresses that we are not reformed by works of the Law—by what we do—but apart from the Law, apart from what we do.
He says that this reformation comes about by faith. By this very pitting faith against works of the Law Paul is showing us that faith is not something we do. Yes, it’s true that when we have faith we are believing, we are trusting in Jesus as Lord and Savior. But somehow God is the one is taking the credit. In some way God is the one claiming the work that is being done.
Faith. Not works of the Law.
Faith. Not what we do.
Faith. What God does. What He brings about. What He accomplishes. It is what He does, apart from what we do.
This is of so much importance that to miss this misses the entire point of Reformation and of the Christian Church and of salvation. The Reformation as we know it was sparked by Luther nailing the 95 Theses on the castle church door of Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517. But this was actually just one event. The Reformation was and is about much more than that. This is what Luther says about the whole matter of being justified by faith apart from works of the Law:
The principle of works of necessity puffs us up and makes for glorying, because he who is righteous and fulfills the Law doubtless has something of which to glory and exalt himself. Now those people… believe that they are of this class, because they have fulfilled outwardly what the Law demands and forbids. For this reason they do not humble themselves, they do not despise themselves as sinners. They do not seek to be justified, they do not cry out for righteousness, because they are confident that they already possess it.
Hence we must note, as we have said above in quoting blessed Augustine, that “the principle of works says: ‘Do what I command,’ but the principle of faith says: ‘Give what You command.’ ” And thus the people of the Law say to the Law and to God, who speaks in the Law: “I have done what Thou hast commanded, it is done as Thou hast ordered.” But the people of faith say: “I cannot do, I have not done, but give me what Thou commandest; I have not done it, but I desire to do it. And because I cannot, I beg and beseech of Thee the power whereby I may do it.” And thus the former is made proud and boastful, and the latter humble and vile in his own eyes… the one is confident in the righteousness which he already possesses, the other prays for the righteousness which he hopes to acquire.
Taking off on this quote from Luther we might also say that those who seek justification, salvation, happiness, whatever it is that people seek apart from faith, are the ones who stand up to God and tell Him what’s what. Conversely, those who seek justification and salvation in God, in faith, are those who listen to God and have nothing to say to Him. Why this is is because of what Paul in the Epistle reading says of the Law of God: that “it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.”
This is not popular. It’s not feel-good theology. It’s not positive thinking. It doesn’t build up self-esteem. It also doesn’t appear to be a very good theology of hope and of salvation. This is exactly the point. There is no hope, no salvation, no feeling good, at least eternally, in the Law. The other way to say this is, ‘by what we do’. Any attempt at finding what you want for eternity outside of God, that is, outside of His grace in Jesus Christ, is failing to find what you want for eternity. You remain outside of salvation, with no hope, for eternity. Everything God gives us of eternal value is apart from what we do. The Law of God shuts us up. Every mouth is stopped. Everyone is held accountable to God. There is no getting around it.
Although we try all the time, don’t we? It’s okay to miss being in worship now and then because sometimes we just need a break. It’s not a big deal to ignore the consistent study of the Word of God with our brother and sister Christians in the congregation because we already know the basics, and we also have a lot going on. It’s perfectly normal to keep our relationship with our neighbors and friends free of talking about Jesus because it’s really hard to know what to say. It’s beyond the scope of the congregation to tell me that I should consistently and proportionately give of my money and time and abilities to Him and in service to others because these things are very personal.
Why do we think and act these ways? Because we want things our way. We do not want them apart from works of the Law, in other words, by what we do, but rather in accordance with the Law, so that we can be content with what we do and talk to God about what we deserve and what He must do for us.
If this weren’t true we wouldn’t treat the things of God and the things He gives us to do with such apathy. We would seek them out. We would look for every opportunity to hear the Word of God and receive the Sacrament. We would rejoice in the opportunity to read and study and inwardly digest the Word of God. We would take extra time out of the day to devote to prayer and meditating on the Word of God. We would actively make time to help and serve others and share the Gospel with them. We would look at our money and our possessions not as our money and the things we possess but rather as things God has given us and indeed entrusted to us. We would see that they are, as wonderful as they are, but a minor slice of the amazing pie that God has given us in granting us gifts. We would see that to give to Him of our time, our talents, and our treasure is really only a minor way of glorifying Him and giving Him thanks. We would see that we can never do enough but that since He has done all there is to do our giving of our time, talents, and treasure is simply response. It’s simply a thank you.
But it’s also, as with faith, something He accomplishes. It’s what He does in us and through us because He has called us to serve. He has called us to eternal life and eternal life to Him is not something in the future but something right now. This is the way Paul speaks in the Epistle reading: “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the Law.” He further says that though “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” they “are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” This is present tense action on the part of God. This is real world stuff on the part of God. It is not hopeful but full of hope. It is not a pipe dream but actual and effectual. It is redemption and it is reformation. It is new life and eternal life. It is justification and salvation. And it is all by God through Jesus Christ, apart from works of the Law, apart from anything you and I can do or anything you and I actually do.
There is a reason we celebrate the Reformation. It’s not because we think Luther is a such a great theologian or the father of the Lutheran faith or even that he’s right about the Gospel. We celebrate the Reformation because we celebrate the fact that we put our sinful flesh to death in admitting that the Law of God silences us. We admit that the Law of God is right and true that we cannot stand before God and say anything to Him that matters because there is nothing good within us, only what separates us from Him. We admit that we are in need, we have no hope of ourselves, we continually try to do things according to our own ways.
So where does the rejoicing and the celebration come in? In the Gospel. That’s what the Reformation, and what continual reformation is all about. Remember at the beginning we said it’s always about Christ? That’s the Gospel. He’s the one who justifies us. He’s the one who saves us. He’s the one who gives us eternal hope, eternal salvation, eternal life. And He does it all apart from works of the Law, by what we do. He does it by what He does. He does it by fulfilling the Law Himself. He does it by He Himself being the sacrifice for the sins of the world. He does it by offering Himself up as the pleasing offering to God that turns God’s wrath away from us sinners and onto His only-begotten Son. This is all by faith, by what God has done, not by the Law, not by what we do.
We could see all the things we do as Christians, being in worship, being in Bible study, giving of our offerings and our time, serving others, sharing the Gospel with them, as drudgery. Or we could see them as what God has given us to do to live by faith. Not by what we do, by what God does in us and through us. He is constantly reforming us through His Gospel, through His Sacraments. He is constantly forgiving us and renewing us. Constantly forming us and equipping us to be light in a world of darkness, good in a world of evil, humble in a world full of itself, servants to the world; a world in need of a Savior, in need of reformation.
We all need it. We’re blessed if we admit it, if we get on our knees and rejoice in the fact that, yes, we do need reformation. We need salvation. We need forgiveness. We need God. We need Christ. We need faith.
God gives us Himself. He gives us Christ. He forgives. He renews. He reforms. He grants us faith and we live knowing that we don’t live by the Law, by what we do, but by grace; by His work in us and through us. By the waters of Baptism that began our new life; by the bread and wine we receive where He gives us the Body and Blood of Christ.
Celebrate the Reformation for what it is: For Christ. For who He is and what He has done for us. That’s really nothing different than what we will be celebrating forever. Amen.